How I took back my life


On the whole, over the years I’ve managed to keep myself pretty well organized. As a child growing up I was always reorganizing my room: rearranging the order of books, folders, stationery, … everything! If it wasn’t nailed down I moved it. It’s probably inevitable that I should get a job working as an information architect!

A few friends have been urging me for months to blog about how my organizational method works for me, so here it is. But before I get onto that, here’s a little of the journey that led me to where I am.

A short history of organization

I always knew there was room for improvement. I’d adapt and improve my methods for filing documents, managing tasks, keeping a diary. At Selkirk High School I had my trusty school diary — when it wasn’t being stolen and scribbled on by Phil Graham — which recorded what I should be doing and when.

In 1989 I moved to St Andrews and I bought myself a cheapish Filofax clone, which I loved and cherished and packed full of useless stuff that probably made me less productive. But it did have tabs, and a lot of coloured paper — that’s got to count for something, surely.

In 1996 I bought my first Psion, a Siena 512KB. It was a life-saver: now I could keep everything in it, neatly organized. No more scribbling out entries, no more running out of contact sheets because everyone listed under “S” had moved and moved again.

My Psion became central to how I organized my life. And then I discovered that I could synchronize it with Schedule+, and then Microsoft Outlook 2000. The joys!


Fast forward to 2003 and you’ll find that Jane and I have just moved from Inverness to Edinburgh. I’m now working with two parishes and I’m beginning to panic. The organizational methods and techniques that I’ve evolved are now being stretched to the limit and I’m beginning to panic.

Really beginning to panic. I just couldn’t keep on top of everything that I needed to do. I remember one morning where I was sitting at my desk in the study and my head was spinning. I had so much to do, but really didn’t know where to start.

I needed assistance, and I need it immediately.

Take Back Your Life

I found it in a book called Take Back Your Life by Sally McGhee, as documented on my blog entry of 25 January 2005.

Take Back Your Life book cover

It’s a really fantastic book, that draws on David Allen’s Getting Things Done techniques but instead of notebooks and diaries and baskets McGhee advocates the use of Microsoft Outlook and a PDA. Works for me!

So this is what I do:

1. Collection points

From my blog post of 2005:

One of the first steps, McGhee says, is to work out how many collection points we use. That is, how many locations do you collect information and tasks from? I was amazed to discover that I had 28 different locations. I’ve now reduced this to eight, which is far more manageable.

Three years later and I now have four (give or take):

  1. In-tray
  2. Mobile phone/PDA
  3. Telephone/answering machine
  4. Email

In tray

My in-tray at home

Pretty much everything goes into my in-tray at home:

  • all mail
  • books
  • CDs
  • contents of my bag
  • documents
  • magazines
  • scribbled notes
  • telephone messages

Really, whatever I need to deal with or sort or tidy away. It all gets dumped into my in-tray. It’s reassuring to know that anything that I’ve not processed yet goes into my in-tray, into the one location that is my main collection point.

At one point in Edinburgh I had no fewer than eight in-trays in my study. It was totally unmanageable.

You’ll notice that there are two in-tray stacks — the one on the left is mine, the one of the right is Jane’s. My in-tray has three levels:

  1. In
  2. Post out
  3. Waiting for


Anything that doesn’t go into my in-tray goes directly into my PDA (O2 Xda Orbit running Windows Mobile 6) or into Outlook Tasks or Calendar — and since my PDA synchronizes with Outlook at both home and work everything ends up in Outlook.

So when I sit down to work out what I need to do I really have to look in only two locations:

  1. My in-tray
  2. Outlook

2. Processing my in-tray

In-tray contents moved to my desk

The next thing I do is begin to process my in-tray. I know from experience that even if the tray is stacked 12 inches high I will still get through it in under an hour. It doesn’t intimidate me how much stuff is in the tray. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m reassured that everything I need to deal with will be processed in one sitting.

I move the contents of my in-tray onto my desk, and starting at the top work through it piece by piece making a decision on every item. There are four options:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

A lot of stuff I can do in less than 5 minutes. Some things just need reading, or throwing into the recycling, or filing away in my filing cabinet:

Filing cabinet

Anything that needs to be deferred for later I add to my Outlook Tasks. Sometimes I’ll add it to Outlook and file the documentation in the filing cabinet (because at least I’ll know where it is when I need to find it later).

3. Processing Outlook Tasks

Usually within 30 minutes I have a clear desk, a few items in my Post Out tray and it’s time to move onto my Outlook Tasks. This is to deal with tasks that I’ve promised to do when I’m out and about, or at work, or have entered into Outlook while processing my in-tray.

Screenshot of Outlook Tasks 2003

Outlook allows you to categorize your tasks, there is also one, default uncategorized group into which any new item is automatically added. Following the guidelines in Sally McGhee’s book I have categories such as:

  • Home Projects
  • Work Projects
  • Blog
  • Computer
  • Desk
  • Home
  • Phone
  • Shopping
  • Waiting for
  • Someday Oneday

Download your head

Before I go any further I often start by ‘downloading my head’: getting out of my head those things that I said I’d do but haven’t recorded anywhere else. This is a great opportunity to stop relying on my memory — that’s why I used to get so stressed.

The first time I tried this exercise I ‘downloaded’ over 85 items … and then was amazed at how relaxed and calm I felt. But it stood to reason that since I was no longer relying on my memory to hold everything it freed my brain to do what it does best: think and plan.


Using similar criteria for dealing with my in-tray I’ll start at the top and work my way through the list, making a decision on each item:

  • Do it
  • Delegate it
  • Defer it
  • Delete it

Some items I do immediately, then delete from the list. Other items get deleted immediately, usually because I’ve decided that it’s no longer a priority. Further items may get delegated to someone else so I’ll either write to them or email them.

If I defer an item in my task list I’ll usually do one of two things:

  • Categorize it within Tasks — these I think David Allen calls “contexts”: where do I need to carry this out? At home, at my desk, on my computer, when I’m shopping? Or …
  • I’ll schedule a time for it by moving it from my task list into my calendar

4. My calendar

This last step was one of the most significant when I moved to this method. Now I have everything in one place: in Outlook (and synchronized on my phone/PDA), I know what I’ve said I’d do (my tasks) and in many case when I’ll do them (my calendar).

Further improvements

I’ve been using this method now for about 3.5 years and I keep refining it, tweaking it to make it a little better and more effective, particularly as my responsibilities change and as I respond to the different tasks and projects that I take on, both at work and at home.

I know when I need to go back to my task list and calendar and start planning again because it’s at those moments that I begin to feel stressed and overwhelmed. It’s during those moments that I realise: I’m not managing my tasks, they’re managing me. Then half-an-hour later once I’ve processed my in-tray and Outlook tasks and scheduled things I feel relaxed and in control once again.

That’s about it in a nutshell. The only really significant thing that I’ve missed out is how I manage my projects within Outlook, but perhaps that could be a post for another day.

Fix for MS Update KB951748 and ZoneAlarm

ZoneAlarm Pro version 7.0.483.000
The new version of ZoneAlarm Pro (version 7.0.483.000) now resides happily alongside Microsoft Update KB951748.

I wasn’t online last night otherwise I’d have seen the HUGE number of comments on my last post about the merry dance that the latest Microsoft Update KB951748 caused for ZoneAlarm users: Microsoft Update KB951748 and ZoneAlarm woes. Thanks for all your comments, folks.

Before I go any further, a big hand to the boffins at Check Point, the company who develop ZoneAlarm for their swift action in fixing the issue caused by this recent Windows Update.

ZoneAlarm Update now available

When I switched on my PC this morning I was presented with a ZoneAlarm update notification:

ZoneAlarm Pro Service Agent window

which had a very clear indication why this update was necessary:

A criticial ZoneAlarm Security Update is now available. This update is required to resolve a problem with the Microsoft Update KB951748, which may cause loss of internet access for ZoneAlarm users on Windows 2000 and XP.

You can also download the update manually from the ZoneAlarm website. The update is available for these products:

  • ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite
  • ZoneAlarm Pro
  • ZoneAlarm Antivirus
  • ZoneAlarm Anti-Spyware
  • ZoneAlarm Basic Firewall

Once installed you will be required to reboot your PC or laptop. I’d recommend that you save your work and close down any applications while you install the update, listen to some soothing music and make yourself a nice cup of tea.

Now install Windows Update KB951748

With Windows happily rebooted it’s now time to install (or re-install) Microsoft Update KB951748. If you’ve not instructed Windows Update to ignore that particular update (which I did, and more on that in a moment) then the little yellow shield will soon appear in the notification area (next to the clock) and likely either go ahead and install the update or prompt you to install, depending on your Automatic Updates settings.

For me, the update didn’t require a reboot.

Windows Automatic Updates

PeterS made a good point in his comment on the last post:

You probably have Windows Updates set to download updates automatically in the background, when you are online. So after you have uninstalled KB951748, Windows will automatically download and reinstall KB951748 again quietly in the background so when you next reboot your PC you won’t be able to go online again.

His recommendation was to switch Automatic Updates from Automatic to “Notify me but don’t automatically download or install them”.

This is actually something that I do every time I reinstall Windows XP, or set-up a new pre-installed machine. I’ve been caught out too many times by Microsoft Updates screwing up either my internet connection or Microsoft Outlook.

Here’s how:

  1. Open Control Panel
    Go to the Start menu and click on Control Panel — it’s in the coloured bar on the right (assuming you’re using the standard Windows XP theme, rather than the Classic Windows 2000 look).
  2. Classic View
    The Control Panel will open in a new window. If you don’t have the Classic View (as shown in the screenshot below) then select “Switch to Classic View” in the panel on the left — I’ve highlighted this area in yellow below. When you do this you’ll see a window-full of icons.
  3. Automatic Updates
    Double-click on the Automatic Updates icon — I’ve highlighted this in green below. It looks like a globe with the Windows logo above it.

Windows XP Control Panel

  1. Offer hidden updates (optional)
    Automatic Updates will open in a new window. Now, if you previously instructed Windows Update to hide KB951748 you can instruct the updater to “Offer updates again that [you’ve] previously hidden” by clicking on the link at the bottom — highlighted in yellow below. (The option will be greyed-out if it’s not available.)
  2. Notify me
    At PeterS said, you will likely have the radio-button dot against “Automatic (recommended)”, indicating that it is the option selected.

    Instead, click on the radio button beside “Notify me but don’t automatically download or install them“.

    Don’t worry, you’re not switching off Automatic Updates, just asking Windows to inform when they are available and what they are — that gives you the opportunity to look them up before you agree to install them.

Automatic Updates

  1. Click OK to set this option. The Automatic Updates window will also close.
  2. Close Control Panel (by clicking on the red X in the top-right corner).
  3. If you’ve not already installed Microsoft Update KB951748, Automatic Updates will soon notify you to install the update.

I hope that’s useful to some folks.

I hope so because it’s just taken me an hour to write this up! Screenshots, by the way, were taken using TechSmith SnagIt 9.

Microsoft Update KB951748 and ZoneAlarm woes


Update: There is now a fix for this issue, see my blog post: Fix for MS Update KB951748 and ZoneAlarm.

Well, that was a quick break from blogging! Actually, it was my experience with Windows Update and the ZoneAlarm firewall today that’s brought me out from my self-imposed blogging exile this week.

I’ll cut to the chase: ZoneAlarm + Security update for Windows (KB951748) = no internet connection.

This is how ZoneAlarm themselves put it:

Microsoft Update KB951748 is known to cause loss of internet access for ZoneAlarm users.

The problem

Basically, this software update is designed to fix vulnerabilities when you’re surfing the Web. It updates a handful of files that are associated with connecting to the internet, including a few to do with TCP/IP which is one of the standard ways that computers can connect to the internet and one another.

Or, here’s how Microsoft put it in Microsoft Security Bulletin MS08-037:

This security update resolves two privately reported vulnerabilities in the Windows Domain Name System (DNS) that could allow spoofing. These vulnerabilities exist in both the DNS client and DNS server and could allow a remote attacker to redirect network traffic intended for systems on the Internet to the attacker’s own systems.

And somehow this update has confused the ZoneAlarm firewall into preventing any connection to the Web. Well, not strictly any connection as I could still ping sites, but that quickly gets tiresome.

That’s a bit like wanting to go shopping, but not being allowed out of the house, so instead you just phone round the shops you wanted to visit to find out if they are open.


ZoneAlarm offer three workarounds:

  1. Uninstall the hotfix (recommended)
  2. Add your DNS servers to the trusted zone in ZoneAlarm (advanced)
  3. Reduce Internet Zone Security level to Medium (not recommended)

Uninstalling KB951748

I wasn’t going to try #3 (although I tested it and it does work); I tried #2 … it didn’t work; so I was left with no option but to uninstall the so-called security fix.

  1. Click the “Start Menu”
  2. Click “Control Panel”, or click “Settings” then “Control Panel”
  3. Click on “Add or Remove Programs”
  4. On the top of the add/remove programs dialog box, you should see a checkbox that says “show updates”. Select this checkbox
  5. Scroll down until you see “Security update for Windows (KB951748)”
  6. Click “Remove” to uninstall the hotfix

Hopefully ZoneAlarm will have a fix soon. I just checked the ZoneAlarm forums and funnily enough it looks quite popular today: “There are currently 132 members online and 22375 guests”.

Still, if you have installed KB951748 — a number that I think I’m now going to see in my sleep tonight; and I’ve been having enough weird dreams this week — and have ZoneAlarm installed, and have rebooted your PC, and you can’t connect to the internet … I do hope you can somehow download this information telepathically.

Such is the irony that the internet contains a whole load of information about how to fix internet connection problems … if only you could connect to it to read that information. There’s a hole in my bucket … !

Fixing Camtasia Studio 5 splash screen crash

Camtasia Studio 5

Isn’t it annoying when software that you’ve bought suddenly stops working for no apparent reason. That happened to me last month with TechSmith Camtasia Studio 5, which is a superb screen recorder for creating screencasts.

The problem

Here’s the support call that I sent them on Wednesday 16 April:

Whenever I try to run Camtasia 5 it crashes after the splash screen. I get “Camtasia Studio has encountered a problem and needs to close. We are sorry for the inconvenience.

That was the problem: I couldn’t get it to run. It would begin to load, I’d get the splash screen and then an error message.

I even installed an older version, Camtasia Studio 3, that I got on a magazine cover DVD. And experienced exactly the same problem.

Which is when I sent TechSmith the support call.

Excellent technical support

I have to say that TechSmith’s technical support was absolutely superb. The following day I received my first of 12 replies from them over the course of almost a month; the first handful were from “Kate S.”, the latter from “Mike Spink”.

I was asked to provide some diagnostic reports that Camtasia Studio should have automatically created. Except that Camtasia Studio wasn’t creating any reports.

Feeling special

Some companies may have given up at that point and with the e-shrug of their remote shoulders sent me a reply saying “Ah, well! Sorry!”

But not TechSmith. They sent me this message:

We created a special build of Camtasia to do some logging to get some more information on the problem. I have attached a zip file. Inside are 3 files. Be sure to copy and paste all 3 files in the following directory …

They sent me a special build of Camtasia. I don’t know about Camtasia but I certainly felt special. I replaced the files, ran the application, got the same crash at the same place but now I had log files to send them.

This happened a couple of times, with a new build each time that requested different data to be logged. And each time I dutifully emailed the log files across the Atlantic to TechSmith HQ in Michigan.

At one point, having not heard back from them for … wait for it … 3 days I got an email apologizing for the delay.

I just wanted to let you know our development team is still looking into the dump files you sent. I haven’t heard anything from them yet but hope to soon.

How courteous was that! Tremendous customer service.

Helping me, helping you

A few days later I got this email from Mike Spink:

I appreciate you taking the time to help us solve this crash in our code.

Right now you are the 3rd user that is experiencing this same exact one and the others didn’t want to go into this much in depth troubleshooting. So thank you for sticking with it.

Hopefully we can get some good info from this latest log.

I was more than happy to help them out. I suspected that I might be helping them rather than hassling them with this call, and it was really nice to hear that from them.

The solution

Then, a few days later, on Monday 12 May, almost a month after I sent the first email I received these magic words:

Would you be able to find out what version of the flash player you’re running in IE?

And if it is not the latest download the latest from Adobe and see if that does anything with the starting up of Camtasia?

I know it seems totally unrelated but we wanted to check on that. Please let me know. Thanks!

So I checked, used the Adobe Flash Player uninstaller, rebooted my PC and then reinstalled Flash Player in Internet Explorer.

And do you know what? It worked! IT WORKED!! I could now use Camtasia Studio 5.

I sent Mike an email:

You guys are geniuses! It worked!

and explained what I’d done.

The last email I got from them said:

I am glad we finally got to the bottom of this. We’re going to see how we can modify our code so we can at least throw back an error message of some sort rather than just crashing. I appreciate your help with this!

So a big hoorah to TechSmith for their fantastic technical support. An inspiration to so many other software companies.

Oh, and Camtasia Studio 5 is a pretty piece of software. Check it out!

Disaster Recovery Kit

Disaster recovery kit

This week I’ve been sorting out a pile of CDs that have been been slowly working its way up skywards, like a compact tower of Babel.

They’ve been mostly music CDs from the covers of Metal Hammer, Rock Sound and Terrorizer magazines, but there were also a couple of guitar tuition CDs and the odd DVD from a PC magazine.

Amongst them was this DVD from PC Plus, from May 2008 (Issue 268) advertising on the cover:

Disaster recovery kit

  • Free-up locked systems
  • Revive corrupt drives
  • Restore deleted files
  • Recover lost passwords

… and much more with this exhaustive PC first aid kit.

Which is great, but I just know that I’m not even going to think about checking out its contents until it’s much too late.

For example

Like the time that I manually (and foolishly) rebooted a PC in the middle of resizing a hard drive partition (see The Prodigal Hard Drive for details). I thought that partitioning software had hung … it hadn’t, it was doing its stuff, albeit with very little user-feedback.

I vowed then that I’d read up on how to repair file allocation tables (FAT) and master boot records (MBR) so that if it ever happened again I’d know what to do, rather than inviting an expert come in, remove my drive, have him scrape the final unusable remnants of data off it and charge me over a hundred quid for the privilege.

Of course I never have.

It just works

These days we seem to assume, perhaps too much, that things will just work. Apple make a big thing of this with the Mac (Get a Mac: it just works).

And we only reach for the instruction manual when things go awry. Or we swear a bit. Hit it with things. And then switch it off and switch it back on again.

Be prepared

For most of my adolescence and early adulthood I tried to be prepared for everything, every eventuality. I read everything: every manual that arrived with a product, DIY books, everything that struck me as useful for a just in case eventuality.

That behaviour came from having a father that was well one day and the following day collapsed miles from home in Nottingham with a brain haemorrhage. Well … I certainly didn’t expect that. No warning, no time to prepare or rehearse my responses.

And from that point on (I was 11 years old) I began my preparations. The Scouts got it right in my opinion: be prepared.

Being hit by a car

By my early-teens I had my behaviour planned out for just about every major disaster that I could imagine. By my mid-teens I’d tested one of them out: being hit by a car.

I’d reckoned that if I couldn’t get out of the path of the oncoming vehicle I should jump moments before impact. My reasoning was that it seemed to me safer to go over the car than under it. It stood to reason, up until that point I’d had more experience jumping up and over things than supporting tonnes of moving steel on my delicate Scottish frame.


The main problem, however, with living like that is that it’s exhausting. It’s like being your own paranoid health and safety department. Invariably things happen that you’ve never anticipated, and you waste so much time planning how to behave in the most unlikely of situations that will never (hopefully) happen.

But if you do ever find yourself shackled and emprisoned in an iron ore mine on the moon you can only hope that I’m in the cell next door. And the guards haven’t confiscated my notebook. And my oxyacetylene torch.

Life happens

Thankfully I’m much more laid back these days.

Life happens. Things go wrong. You deal with it. And you grow in the dealing with it.

But I didn’t understand that as a kid. I saw problems as unwelcome interruptions distracting me from the real purpose of my life, like when you’re trying to get on with a piece of work and the phone keeps ringing. But they’re really just a natural part of life, and in the grand scheme of things I’ve lived such a sheltered and privileged life. Life is so much more exciting now (I’ve chilled out).

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the Disaster recovery kit DVD. I’ll probably file it away with my other PC cover discs. And bin it in a year’s time when I’m clearing stuff out.

I’ll probably promise to learn how to repair a master boot record then too. But I probably won’t. I’ll be too busy trying to unshackle my friend and escape from the moon.